With 200m people but only 150 psychologists working in the mental health space, Nigeria needed a new idea. So Victor Ugo started something
It was a most unusual consultation. Dr Ayo Ajeigbe received the patient at his private practice in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, in his customary welcoming manner.
But there was, it turned out, nothing wrong with the man. And when Ajeigbe asked why he was there, he simply replied: “I just wanted to see what a psychologist looked like.”
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised. Mental health professionals are rare in Nigeria, as they are in many other developing nations. In Africa’s most populous nation – a country of more than 200 million people – there are an estimated 150 practising psychologists.
If mental health treatments are patchy, inadequate and underfunded in most western nations, they are practically nonexistent in the majority of lower- and middle-income countries – more than 100 countries worldwide. Here mental health provisions are the poorly resourced afterthought of health budgets that are in any case likely to be meagre.
So what is to be done? Ajeigbe decided that a partial answer lay in the voluntary sector. A year ago, he agreed to head up the Abuja section of Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (Mani), a burgeoning user-led organisation fast emerging as a multi-pronged solution to Nigeria’s mental health crisis.
Mani was launched in 2016 by Victor Ugo, a then medical student from Lagos who had suffered from depression, as a response to the lack of mental health support in Nigeria, where an estimated 7 million people have the same condition.
Ugo’s vision was to drive change by raising awareness and dispelling stigmas that exist around mental health issues in Nigeria.
If you have depression,” says Latifah Yusuf Ojomo, the deputy head of Mani’s Lagos team, “people can cast you as mad, which means that the majority of people who have mental health issues in Nigeria do not understand, or want to accept what they are feeling.”
From the outset, Ugo decided that if Mani was to have any significant impact it would need to focus attention on the country’s most populous demographic. “Young people [in Nigeria] are much more open to learning new things,” explains Ugo, “they are much more focused on ways to change.”
Mani needed a “cool factor”, something Ugo says was sorely lacking in the mental health sector: “Symposiums, that was all that was happening with mental health in Nigeria, just more and more symposiums, people would give a lecture saying we need to increase awareness, but nothing was happening.”